story and photos by Aric Mitchell
The Step Up, Speak Out (SUSO) movement hosted four block parties on Wednesday night (Oct. 10) at separate locations to promote child sexual abuse awareness.
The Fort Smith events lasted from 5 to 7 p.m., and were located at the Spradling Elementary School on North 50th Street; Girls, Inc., at 1415 Old Greenwood Road; Evans Boys and Girls Club at 6015 Boys Club Lane; and Martin Luther King Park.
The block parties comprised the second citywide event of 2012 for the SUSO campaign, differing this time from the singular event in April that brought in approximately 1,500 people, who met at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) to raise awareness and promote vigilance within the community.
With a new approach, campaign organizer Sam Sicard, president and CEO of First National Bank of Fort Smith, hoped to find people, who “missed it the first time around by going to where they are.”
“When we started this campaign, I thought it was all about prevention and all about children,” Sicard said. “What I didn’t realize is the impact this would have on those who’ve already been abused, from teenagers to grandmothers and grandfathers, ages 12 to 80. We want this to be something that is positive for them. To some degree, it can open old wounds, but there are a lot of people out there carrying a lot of secrets, who feel some sense of shame. We want them to know they don’t have to be. You’re not alone. And even for those of us who weren’t abused as children—we can be here to support them, love them, and have compassion for them.”
Sicard said he was hoping for a cumulative crowd of 1,000, or “200-300 per location.”
The campaign was off to a good start at the Girls, Inc., and Martin Luther King block parties as each location welcomed more than 100 attendees in their first 30 minutes.
Sparks Regional Medical Center sponsored the Girls, Inc., event, which featured free food, games and entertainment. Donna Bragg, the company’s marketing and communications director, said it “makes sense for Sparks to be a part of this.”
“The well-being and healthcare of children in the community is critical to what we do. It’s in our community. It’s in our backyard. The statistics for child sexual abuse are horrifying, so we need to do something to try and make it better. It sickens us that children are going through this,” Bragg said.
Since the effort launched in February 2012, it has attracted the attention of a number of leaders and well-known figures in the Fort Smith region, including Jackie Hamilton, executive director of the Hamilton House Child Safety Center, and Garrett Lewis, 5NEWS Chief Meteorologist.
But to keep going strong, Sicard points out, “everyone must be accountable for the safety of our kids. It’s sustainability through accountability.”
Sicard continued: “We’re realistic, but our mission is to stop it or prevent it from ever happening. It’s an extremely bold mission, and really, what that means is the mission never ends.”
The group already has a spring event in its sights with an expected date of April 27.